This article may disturb you and its tone might offend you, but it’s still a valuable read:
Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand.
Source: Stop Calling Women Nags — How Emotional Labor is Dragging Down Gender Equality
Gemma Hartley attempts to explain a situation so common to us women that it never occurred to me to give it a name. (And let me clarify that I’m not posting this because I feel like my husband throws emotional labor on me of this sort. But it’s definitely a topic we’ve had to learn to talk through and come to agreements on.)
Hartley tells a familiar scenario: she wanted her Mother’s Day gift to be a cleaning service deep-clean of her bathrooms and windows (IIRC) and she wanted her husband to take up the work of figuring out which service to hire and scheduling it. Her husband balked a bit at the price and offered to clean everything himself. Not wanting to offend him or cause a fight or try to explain, Hartley agreed…. then gritted her teeth while he scrubbed the bathrooms (pretty well) the entire weekend. It wasn’t what she wanted because what she really desired as a gift was not having to think about the cleaning.
What her husband did not understand was that, for Harley as with most of us women, having her man “underfoot” doing a chore she’d rather hire out created its own level of “work” – what she terms emotional labor. The work of poring over Angie’s List to locate a reputable company takes hours of research and anxiety about the research; making the calls to line things up; or having to step over a husband bent over the toilet. Those are all forms of mental work.
Women tend to be the house-despots (to borrow the koine Greek term): we tend to be the ones who carry the entire logistical structure of a household in our heads. Mothers know which kids will eat carrots and which won’t. Wives know why they want the measuring spoons in this drawer and not that one, regardless of whether we can explain this distinction to anyone else’s satisfaction. Making decisions takes considerable mental and emotional weight for many women; perhaps this is true of men too, but they don’t seem to be nearly as hung up about it.
When we women talk about the ways in which housework never seems to be divided “fairly,” some men push back. And many men DO pick up quite a bit of household chore work, and for that we women are genuinely grateful. But there’s an additional layer of work that remains invisible to most men, for reasons I cannot fully explain. The way in which work is done is, for women, part of the work itself.
That’s why I get irrationally cranky sometimes when my husband so kindly offers to help me cook supper. Except he doesn’t stir the pasta with the same spoon I’m using; he ‘dirties’ another spoon, usually the big plastic serving spoon. I fume inside: Why are we subjecting this Farberware nylon utensil to boiling hot pasta water when the wooden spoon that we’re using for the sauce is impervious to heat? Why are we using seven different utensils to make this dish in the first place? Why did he lay the stirring spoon flat on the countertop where it’s leaving behind a puddle of tomato goo that might possibly stain the surface? that’s what the spoon rest is for!!
This mental dialogue annoys me for two reasons: first, I feel petty for even allowing it to happen, and two, it reminds me of the things that genuinely annoy me about trying to cook with someone else beside me.
What Hartley brings to the discussion is the idea that women are not petty or insecure or “nags” when we demand that certain tasks be done in very particular ways. Her husband missed the point by insisting that he could meet the need she identified, because he couldn’t even see the real need: a clear mind, free from the concern of how her bathrooms would get cleaned. She wanted a release from the emotional labor of the chore as well as the chore itself.
Would the cleaning service still cause emotional labor for Hartley? Of course! But Hartley can be bitchy toward a cleaning lady if she has to (or touch up afterwards herself, satisfied that 95% of the work was already done). To carry that dissatisfaction into her relationship with her husband was disheartening and damaging. Instead of getting a Mother’s Day present she wanted, she ended up in a minor fight with her spouse.
I realize this is a dangerous topic partly because it implies there are gender differences, and that’s generally frowned on in some circles these days. Well, screw it. I think there ARE gendered differences – maybe they’re learned rather than innate, but they certainly exist. And I think all men could benefit from learning this simple principle when they are young boys:
Re: Emotional Labor
HI, guys! Gonna keep this short and to the point. In exchange, please promise you’ll just believe me and not insist that I somehow “prove” this to you. Trust me, you’ll be better off to accept this advice and act on it, and work to understand it later.
We women tend to have very particular ways we want things done. It doesn’t apply to all things and you probably can’t predict it. But sometimes when you can sense something is wrong and we can’t tell you, this is the culprit.
Women build complex mental models for how we want certain things to work. If you mess with those mental models, it pisses us off. I’m sorry; I wish I could turn off this part of my brain. But I can’t, and neither can most of the women in your life.
This phenomenon is what we might term emotional labor: the need that some of us have to control minute details of particular tasks. It’s exhausting, but it’s also the Force that holds the Universe together. If you were lucky to grow up in a household where you had warm food, clean clothes, a soft bed, and access to school, there was probably a woman in your life who made that happen. (There are some men who carry the brunt of emotional labor for the household logistics, but in American households, this still seems to be rare, even with stay-at-home dads.)
When your mom screams at you for the 1000th time to pick up your damn shoes instead of leaving them at the door, she’s mad because you’ve added to her emotional workload – she has to think about your damn shoes, on top of everything else. When your girlfriend gets mad because you tried (and failed) fold her clothes (or yours) out of the dryer AND gets mad that you never want to help her with laundry, she’s pissed that you aren’t as particular as she is about these details, and it feels unfair that she has to do all of this herself. The classic example is the guy who steps around a box on the floor for days until the woman, seething with rage, cuttingly drops passive-aggressive hints about his broken arms or weak muscles. Eventually the guy (if he’s been around a few females in his life) might catch on and put the box away on his own. Woe to the man who drives a woman to demand outright that he do a chore so obvious, she’s in a rage about even having to utter the request.
You might respond: Hey, I never asked you to carry this load. Don’t get mad at me for your stupid insistence on these dumb details. And in a way, you’re right. Like I said, I wish we could turn off this setting in our brains.
But understand: our insane attention to emotional labor explains why your mom remembered not only your birthday but also the birthday of every friend you ever brought over to play, and the kid’s food allergies. It explains how you were able to open the frig most days and find a snack you would actually eat, or why she told you to piss off if you ate all the snacks on Day 1 after grocery shopping. (You ran through supplies faster than she’d planned.) It explains how, even if you grew up poor, like I did, there was still a pile of presents under the tree. (My mom shopped all year long and hid things in her secret places for months.)
So the best thing you guys can do is learn to ASK us whether you’re accidentally doing something to make our lives harder. With enough patience and trust, we can learn to communicate why we’re mad. And you can learn not to argue as much about what we’re asking you to do.
You can also (gently) remind us that we women have the right to ask you to do something, or to tell you how to do it – but not both. 😉 (That’s a maxim my husband started repeating early in our marriage, and it prevented a lot of foolish fights.)